EAA AirVenture, the genius of Burt Rutan

Two wings. One fuselage. Propeller in front. Tail at back. I was content with my presumptions about airplanes in the 1970s, until Burt Rutan began messing with my head in Oshkosh.

The newly retired California designer of eye-widening and award-winning aircraft earns a day of tribute July 28, at the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture.

Some of the 500,000 who attend AirVenture – the world’s biggest gathering of aviation enthusiasts – arrive in the 10,000 planes that temporarily turn Wittman Regional Airport into the world’s busiest, based on the number of takeoffs and landings. Many are homebuilt planes, constructed by average people.

Rutan made some of this possible while challenging conventional thinking, although another dimension of his work is beyond the average pilot’s reach. Consider the two-passenger SpaceShipOne, a 2004 design that earned Rutan the $10 million “X Prize” and may someday launch private-pay passengers into outer space. The technology is licensed to Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who is selling $200,000 tickets to ride another Rutan version of the spacecraft, now under construction.

So the world of flight remains ever-changing, even as federal dollars for space exploration dwindle. One reason people attend the EAA AirVenture is to marvel at the miraculous possibilities.

For five years, I’d cover the annual EAA fly-in and see Rutan show up with something new and strange that seemed to break the rules.

The aerospace engineer’s single-seat Quickie, galactic in tone but sporty in size, flies with a rear-end propeller and was born shortly after the 1977 “Star Wars” movie release. The sassy little plane, big enough for just a pilot (who is no larger than 6-foot-6 or 215 pounds), earned the EAA’s Outstanding New Design Award one year later.

Rutan would win the award three times before the decade ended.

His Quickie was a condensed version of the two-person VariEze (“very easy”), which was missing the traditional tail but had four wings – one set long and v-shaped, the other short, straight and piercing the airplane’s nose.

Both planes were sleeker relatives of the VariViggen, whose stocky body and thick, flipped up rear wings seemed itchin’ for a fight. None provided as much room, fuel or payload as the subsequent Long-EZ.

“EAA has been a critical component of my career since 1972,” Rutan says, in press materials. “Our annual trips to Oshkosh were the highlight of our business year,” and opportunities to meet and guide aircraft homebuilders “were critical to the success of the builders and me personally.”

The annual fly-in began in 1953 as a way for pilots to network, socialize and learn from each other. Volunteers (about 5,000 this year) are crucial to the event’s success. No alcohol is sold on the convention grounds.

Some components don’t change. That includes the diversity of what flies: screeching military fighters and hefty bombers to delicate ultralights and nimble aerobatic designs.

Almost 1,000 AirVenture events – workshops, concerts, book signings – engage pilots and the public. Most popular are the afternoon and at-dark air shows, where pilots deliberately stall engines, spin and roll. Teams of planes perform an aerial ballet of dips, swoops and twirls. Others re-enact historical military battles with a fierceness of precision and power.

Speed matters, sometimes. Other times it’s all about grace and synchronicity. Few know this better than Bob Hoover, an air racer, World War II pilot and a pioneer in aerobatic performance. The Nashville native gets his day of honor July 26 at the AirVenture.

The EAA AirVenture happens July 25-31 at Wittman Regional Airport, Oshkosh. Admission is $37 for adults, $20 for ages 6-18 (but free for students on July 31, free for ages 5 or younger. Rates for military personnel, veterans and EAA members are lower. www.airventure.org, 920-426-4800

For a bird’s eye view of event, arrange a flight (at an additional cost) on a Bell 47 (think “M*A*S*H” TV show) helicopter, 1929 Ford Tri-Motor (the first airliner in mass production) or B-17 “Flying Fortress” (World War II bomber). Details available at AirVenture.

Burt Rutan Day, July 28, includes the flight of aircraft designed by Rutan at the 3:30 p.m. air show and an 8 p.m. tribute. Bob Hoover’s work is acknowledged during the afternoon air show and an 8 p.m. tribute July 26.

Performers include REO Speedwagon, July 25; actor Gary Sinese and his Lt. Dan Band, July 29; and Aaron Tippin, July 30. Actor Harrison Ford introduces the showing of “Clear and Present Danger” July 27, Robert Hays of the “Airplane!” cast introduces the 1980 movie July 28, and director George Lucas offers a “Red Tails” movie preview July 29.

Burt Rutan designs are among the aircraft on display at the EAA AirVenture Museum, 3000 Poberezny Rd., Oshkosh. Admission is $12.50 or $31 per family. www.airventuremuseum.org, 920-426-4800

Five of his planes are in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.